Marek Zvelebil

Marek Zvelebil (1952—2011)

Fellow Malcolm Lillie wrote the following obituary, which he wrote with the help of Peter Jordan and Jenny Moore, for our late Fellow Marik Zvelebil.

‘Marek Zvelebil, Professor of European Prehistory in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, died on 7 July 2011, aged fifty-nine. Despite recent illnesses, including heart surgery, Marek’s passing was still a great shock to all who knew him.

‘It is perhaps easiest to start this most difficult of tasks with some general information about Marek’s life as summarised in the dedication to him at his funeral, attended by family and friends from around the world. The eulogies reinforced the image of an individual who embraced life to its fullest, a man who was clearly a well-loved son, brother, father and partner, an intellectual, and, as many of his former students have said, an inspiration and a mentor, and someone who still had much to give.

‘Marek was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1952. After his family left Prague in 1968, victims of the suppression of the Prague Spring, he lived with his family in both the USA and the Netherlands. He enjoyed saying that he had been called up to do national service in three separate armies, but had managed to serve in none. More recently his family lived in France.

‘Graduating from Sheffield in 1974, Marek went to Cambridge for his doctoral research under Grahame Clark. His thesis, on a socio-economic prehistory of southern Finland and the East Baltic (with an emphasis on the transition to farming), completed in 1981, set the framework for his later research.

‘Marek joined the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at Sheffield in 1980, and in 1999, he was awarded a Personal Chair in European Prehistory. During this period, he also taught at the universities of South Carolina (1980—1), Boston (1987) and California at Berkeley (1997).

‘Both in Britain and abroad Marek was widely regarded as being among the most important and influential archaeological thinkers of his generation. He continued to produce seminal papers and syntheses right up to his death, and few people in archaeology have produced as many important works. Such publications as the 1986 Hunters in Transition or the 1994 “Plant Use in the Mesolithic and its role in the transition to farming”, which was awarded the R M Baguley prize after appearing in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, are but two that spring to mind. His CV includes over 100 books and papers, and the broad range of Marek’s intellectual endeavours means that his work includes essential reading for any student of hunter-gatherer societies and the origins of agriculture, as well as other aspects of culture, language and ethnicity, and landscape archaeology.

‘His embedded theoretical approach to hunter-gatherers, the Mesolithic and the transition to agriculture made his research both innovative and simulating. More recently two important volumes, LBK Dialogues (2004) and Ceramics before Farming (2010), reinforced Marek’s continuing active research career, and at the time of his death he was working on a comprehensive synthesis of his theoretical work in relation to the social aspects of the Mesolithic.

‘The fact that Marek was fluent in English, Czech and Russian, with a sound knowledge of Dutch, German, French, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovenian and Serbo-Croat, facilitated collaboration with colleagues through Europe, leading to several major research projects — most recently the AHRC-funded ‘Biological and Cultural Identity of the First Farmers: Multiple Bio-Archaeological Analysis of a Central European Cemetery’, centring on the early LBK cemetery of Vedrovice, in Moravia.

‘Marek’s innovative and engaging teaching style made him enormously popular with generations of Sheffield undergraduates and postgraduates, all of whom will be saddened by his passing. The greatest attribute that a mentor and teacher can have is the desire to impart their knowledge and experience to younger academics. Marek was generous with both his time and intellect, even if you were not his student. If you had a project in mind, a workshop, conference or research idea, Marek would frequently make a significant contribution, even if it were not a high profile event, and he would regularly contribute to any subsequent publication.

‘Marek worked hard to increase international collaboration and mutual understanding by taking students on excavations and cultural field trips in the Czech Republic, and it was apparent, for example, that the Erasmus students attending the excavations at Švarzenberk were all inspired by Marek’s combined love of archaeology and of South Bohemia.

‘Marek applied his intellectual principles to his own life and social activities: he was enthusiastic, inspirational and supportive, gregarious and international in outlook, always seeing the best in people to whom he was drawn by their ideas and depth of character, rather than their social status or ethnic or national background. As a result, he had a tremendously wide and diverse circle both in academia and beyond. If he could sometimes be infuriatingly confrontational and provocative, that was only because he was a consummate intellectual, who lived his too-short life to the full.’

The following obituary was published on the web by Sheffield University shortly after his death:

Marek Zvelebil 1952 - 2011

Marek Zvelebil left his native Prague in his teens and after living in the USA completed his schooling in Oxford before coming to Britain to study archaeology. He gained his BA at Sheffield, and his PhD at Cambridge where he was one of the last students of Professor Sir Grahame Clark. He then taught at the University of South Carolina before returning to Sheffield in 1981 as a Research Fellow, then Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor. With spells as a visiting professor at several institutions across Europe and North America, he spent 30 years on the staff of the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield.

Marek was a larger-than-life character, whose deep voice, even deeper laugh and heavy-handed thumping of his keyboard reverberated in neighbouring offices around the building in Sheffield. Despite an often stormy relationship with IT, Marek was an innovative and inspiring teacher, delivering very popular courses in `Diet and Culture´ and `Ethnicity, Archaeology and Nationalism´, long before these topics became fashionable. The former course was inspired inter alia by Marek´s love of good food and wine, the latter by his personal experience of exile. His interest in ethnicity and identity led to work on the relationship (or not) between language and genetics, notably in the effective challenge that he mounted together with his linguist father, Prof. Kamil Zvelebil, against the argument that colonizing farmers introduced Indo-European languages to Europe.

The main focus of Marek´s teaching and research, however, was Europe´s Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and their contribution to the subsequent transition to farming. A recurring theme in much of this work is Marek´s commitment to integrating biological/ecological and cultural/social approaches. He carried out his PhD work in Finland, always travelling there by car and ferry for fear that flights approaching a fog-bound Helsinki might be diverted to nearby Leningrad. This permitted numerous stop-offs with colleagues and friends along the way, and the contacts he made in this way he kept up throughout his life.

Early in Marek´s career he championed hunting and gathering as an alternative to farming, not simply as its primitive precursor – an idea that has recently gained much more traction, but which was then in its infancy. Marek was a leading member of the small group of archaeologists arguing that both the population density and the social complexity of Scandinavian and Baltic hunter-gatherers were similar to those of the earliest farmers in continental Europe. How the hunter-gatherers achieved this was a major interest throughout Marek´s career, and in numerous publications he examined the interplay between the productive environment and the diverse and complex ways in which people exploited the available resources.

Marek´s research subsequently broadened to include many other aspects. He co-directed a major field project in Southeast Ireland, and was also actively involved in the Sheffield department´s long-term project in the Outer Hebrides. The fall of communism allowed him once more to visit the Czech Republic and to carry out collaborative research with colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology in Prague. His mastery of many languages gave him access to academic writings beyond the reach of most anglophone researchers. This helped him to research the eastern European origins of the farmers whose descendants encountered the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic over a millennium later. It also allowed him to research another of his interests, shamanism and related phenomena in Siberian hunter-gatherers. Marek was a world-class prehistorian whose interests and impact transcended modern political boundaries.

Marek was only 59 when he died, and our understanding of some of our earliest European ancestors will inevitably be diminished by the fact that his ambitious plans for future research and teaching projects will not now be brought to fruition. He is survived by his partner Alena, by his son Nicky and daughter Josie, his mother and sisters Katya and Marketa as well as by his ex-wives Robin and Jane.

By Peter Rowley-Conwy and Paul Halstead

Follow the link below to read the Prehistoric Society's tribute: